Zappa versus Macca – another crazy “contest”

On the Zappateers forum, someone re-posted some nonsense (hyperlink arguing that Paul McCartney was a better musician/composer than FZ. As curious and debatable as that notion is, the article has a fatal flaw – it emphasizes solo McCartney, not Beatles McCartney!

There are two musicological ways to comment on that.

1. As a teenager I used to argue that Frank Zappa would one day be acclaimed as the most significant musician of the second half of the twentieth century. In keeping with the typical drift towards pessimism and despair as one ages, I no longer believe this.
FZ spoke a musical language which people either intuitively understand or are alienated by. (Think of the melodic lines and chord progressions in a composition like “The Perfect Stranger” (from the album of the same name), “Envelopes” (from the album Ship Arriving…) or even “Dew On The Newts We Got” (from the Pleated Gazelle section of 200 Motels) – that’s Zappa language in its purest form. To those who do not naturally “get” it, it sounds either “coldly technical” or, to quote Martin Aston, “grotesque and sarcastic”.
Accessible or not, “pure uncompromising Zappa” is indisputably “nobler” than post-Beatles-McCartney’s large catalogue of annoyingly nonsensical / incoherent songs (think Jet, think Admiral Halsey, think Little Lamb…or Bip Bop if you want the extreme).

2. McCartney was (presumably still is) an excellent multi-instrumentalist, but the writer pays too much attention to his bass playing (arguably the least of his talents).
In rock music, and R&B, the development of the bass guitar was stifled early. Compare and contrast the history of the bass instruments in jazz.

McCartney represents the first stage in the attempted emancipation of the bass in popular music – the Milt Hinton/George Duvivier stage.

John Entwistle, Jack Bruce and Carol Kay represent the next stage – they’re the Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown of popular music (perhaps).

The better funk bassists – let’s state the obvious and cite Larry Graham and Bootsy – because of their tone and attack they’re analogous to Charles Mingus.

And the bass virtuosi who more often than not had either one foot in the jazz camp or a detailed knowledge of jazz – Chris Squire, John Camp of Renaissance, and from Zappa’s orbit Patrick O’Hearn – they’re comparable to the likes of Scott La Faro and Jimmy Garrison.

But that’s where it stops. There have been no developments in rock/R&B bass playing comparable to Jaco Pastorius/Steve Swallow/Peter Kowald. The inherent populist conservatism of the musical forms militate against it. The only development has been re-examination, and refinement, of the mid-’60s bass style (Peter Hook, Simon Gallup, Simon Raymonde).


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